TAMPA, Florida – If you’ve been watching the Republican National Convention at home, you probably missed the speech former Representative Artur Davis of Alabama gave on Tuesday night. Sandwiched between Ted Cruz, the Tea Party darling who won an impressive come-from-behind victory in Texas’s GOP Senate primary, and Nikki Haley, the strikingly youthful Indian-American governor of South Carolina, Davis was overshadowed in most of the media coverage. MSNBC decided not to air Davis’s speech at all, which was a noteworthy omission given that Davis had cut his political teeth as a Democrat and indeed as an enthusiastic early backer of President Obama.
But on a star-studded night, before hotly anticipated speeches by Ann Romney and conservative action hero Chris Christie, it was Davis who gave the most effective performance. It was so effective, in fact, that I heard many of the assembled participants speculate about which office he’d run for next.
Party switchers are a staple at these quadrennial affairs. They dramatize the case against the opposition by offering dispatches from within the belly of the beast and signal that it’s safe for voters to forswear their old allegiances. And so they serve the double function of rallying the base and wooing the center.
Perhaps the most notable party switcher in recent memory was Zell Miller, the then-U.S. senator and former governor of Georgia, who gave a spellbindingly zealous speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Having once been the centrist Democrat par excellence, practically inventing Bill Clinton’s Third Way playbook, Miller let loose a torrent of rage at Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry that delighted rock-ribbed conservatives everywhere — and may well have frightened small children.
Miller’s fiery address foreshadowed the results of the 2004 election. White southerners, many of whom had retained some vestigial loyalty to the Democratic party of their forefathers, flocked to George W. Bush and the GOP, which helped the party make significant gains in the U.S. Senate. This consolidation of the South has had a deep and profound impact on our politics, in part by sparking an equal and opposite reaction that has driven much of coastal urban America into the arms of the Democrats.